Screening Report: Clara Bow in IT (1927) at Nitehawk Cinema

r-CLARA-BOW-IT-GIRL-largeTalking is never okay at the movies. But what about singing?

Vocalist Mary Alouette and the djangOrchestra accompanied Clarence G. Badger’s IT (1927) today during a brunch screening at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, and the result was surprisingly effective. In the first installment of Nitehawk’s Vamps and Virgins series of silent films with live music, Clara Bow’s iconic performance as a seductive shop girl was narratively enhanced with an inventive combination of Alouette’s ethereal vocals and the four-member ensemble’s Django Reinhardt-style “gypsy jazz.” And the enthusiastic crowd – the largest I’ve seen for a silent at the Williamsburg “cinema eatery” – seemed pleased with the results. I was too, despite my penchant for purism.

Silents with non-traditional accompaniment can be controversial, particularly when a film has an extant original score, or a new one that has become definitive (such as Carl Davis’ 1991 score for IT, which I heard performed live the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival). But this was no gimmicky musical modification of a cinema classic, like Giorgio Moroder’s much maligned marriage of New Wave pop with Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS. Using a combination of scat-style vocal improvisation and powerfully throaty renditions of original songs, Alouette actually added texture to the images, lyrically commenting on the action in a style reminiscent of traditional Japanese Benshi narrators.

IT“Hot damn!” she sang, as flirty Flapper Betty Lou (Bow) caught the attention of her wealthy boss (Antonio Moreno) at Waltham’s Department Store. “Nobody could keep their eyes off her. She’s got It.”

Alouette also wove in lyrics from “Avalon,” a 1920 Al Jolson hit, and the charmingly nonsensical original song “Blue Violet,” from her 2012 EP Midas. “Life on the ground, how silent the sound, wonder up above,” she sang, as the ensemble performed beneath the silver screen.

Alouette, who told me afterward that she loves silent movies and Flapper culture, was sparing in her use of vocals, allowing the ensemble’s period-appropriate instrumentals to do the lion’s share of the scoring.  Composed themes and musical motifs were used to establish characters and situations, and improvisation carried through the connecting action, with Alex Simon and Sami Arefin on guitar, Ethan Foote on bass, and Alex Dadras on percussion. When Alouette wasn’t singing she was electronically punctuating the proceedings with a synth, creating soundscapes meant to represent the ocean or a busy store. The effect was sonically subtle, and almost never distracting.

Mary

Mary Alouette (Photo by Shervin Lainez)

But the most powerful moment of the screening occurred when Bow’s boss forces a kiss on his unsuspecting employee. Alouette and the Orchestra fell mute, enhancing Betty Lou’s discomfort on screen and reiterating the fact that, at her core, Bow’s “It Girl” was really just looking for love, not a roll in the bedding department. Even with silent film accompaniment, sometimes silence is golden.

As they sometimes do with classics, Nitehawk screened IT from a DVD. This is less than optimal, but not uncommon for silent film screenings at smaller venues. I’ll accept a lesser quality playback medium when the accompaniment is as entertaining and inventive as it was from Alouette and the djangOrchestra.

The Vamps and Virgins series returns on September 28 and 29 with METROPOLIS featuring Black Lodge (likely not performing Gottfried Huppertz’s score) and concludes on October 26-27 with Paul Leni’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) accompanied by Guizot. Attendance is recommended, particularly if you don’t mind people sitting next to you using cellphones to illuminate their omelettes as they eat.

For more information on Mary Alouette visit her website. Special thanks to my friend Alan Hait for accompanying me to this screening. 

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About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer, reporter, radio host, and #OldMovieWeirdo. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and Slate and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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8 Responses to Screening Report: Clara Bow in IT (1927) at Nitehawk Cinema

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Very cool, Will. Thanks :-)

  2. Rich says:

    I’ve never been to Nitehawk. Do they have waiters bring your orders to you or do you get it yourself?

    • willmckinley says:

      Rich, they bring it to you. You place your order before the film begins, or write it on little cards after the film has started so as not to disrupt. I kind of hate the concept of the “gastro theater,” but they have some inventive programming.

  3. Pingback: Screening Report: Clara Bow in IT (1927) at Nitehawk Cinema | Mary Alouette

  4. Nitrate Diva says:

    Gracious! Sounds like a very interesting screening indeed. This particular live score struck me at first as something that would drive me nuts, but I applaud the sincerity with which the performers tackled the material—especially the silence around that important kiss. Thanks as always for sharing your cinematic experiences; they make for splendid reading.

  5. Pingback: Old Movie Camp | cinematically insane

  6. Pingback: Screening Report: THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) at Nitehawk Cinema | cinematically insane

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